ESSENTIAL

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This is one of the greatest of all Hollywood musicals and one of the greatest of all Hollywood movies.  It represents a confluence of virtuosity in a number of different disciplines, principally songwriting, screenwriting, cinematography and directing.

It is not perfect by any means.  The choreography is often merely serviceable, some of the numbers are indifferently staged, some of the acting and singing is acceptable at best.  The brilliance of the other contributions, however, far outweighs the film’s flaws.

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Forget your prejudices, if you have them, against musicals, against Rodgers and Hammerstein, against Julie Andrews, and surrender to their collective genius.  Forget your prejudices, if you have them, against simplicity and implausible redemption, and surrender, at least for a few hours, to hearts that are lighter and brighter than yours is.

The Blu-ray of The Sound Of Music belongs in every civilized home.

LA BAIE DES ANGES

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When I first moved to Las Vegas I lived for a few weeks in one of the cheap rooms over the gaming floor of the El Cortez downtown.  I loved it — never wanted to leave.  I played a lot of roulette there — the stakes were so low that you could spin out $20 over a whole evening, getting free drinks in the bargain.

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It was great for people watching, and the people were often sad, many really thinking they were going to win serious money spreading their 25-cent chips over the board, some keeping meticulous records of the numbers that came up, hoping to detect patterns.

Desperate guys who’d busted out would follow me to the men’s room and ask to borrow ten bucks to stay in the game.  A black guy who kept losing, like almost everybody else, told me he thought the odds were stacked against black players in Las Vegas — that blacks simply weren’t allowed to win.

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Jacques Demy’s La Baie des Anges captures the mood of desperate, addicted roulette players better than any story I know — the self-deception, the occasional exhilaration, the creeping sense of doom, the feeling of becoming unmoored in time.  The film is almost clinical in its depiction of the phenomenon.

One dreams of meeting a stunning dame like Jeanne Moreau at a roulette table, but only if she brings you luck.  If not, she’s just another distraction, just another ironic signpost on the road to disaster.  It’s all very depressing.

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Demy being Demy, of course, there is always redemption of one sort or another waiting in the wings — a moment of grace that may not be plausible or expected according to the cynical standards of this world.  In the case of La Baie des Anges it’s like the moments of grace we find at the climax of many John Ford films — The Informer or Stagecoach or The Searchers.  Grace doesn’t operate by the cynical standards of this world — so Ford and Demy simply say, “Fuck ‘em” . . . and just like that those standards are fucked, and you’re in tears.

Click on the images to enlarge.

MAN OF THE WEST

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Kino Lorber has just released a terrific Blu-ray of Anthony Mann’s terrific Man Of the West, starring Gary Cooper.

Mann started out making low-budget films noirs in the 1940s then became a master filmmaker in the Western genre with the five Westerns he made with Jimmy Stewart in the 1950s.  After he and Stewart had a falling out and parted ways, Mann made a few more Westerns with other stars, including Man Of the West.

Like all of Mann’s Westerns it has a noirish edge to it.  Cooper is a reformed outlaw drawn by chance back into the company of his former gang, led by the psychotic Dock Tobin, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Lee J. Cobb.

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Forced to face up to the crud he used to be and struggling to escape the clutches of the gang once again, he endures a dark night of the soul, of humiliation and shame, before performing the heroic deeds that will set things right again.

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Mann had a terrific eye for composition, for landscapes and for movement within them.  When he started working in CinemaScope, as here, he began to develop the epic style he would one day bring to late-career films like El Cid, one of the greatest of all Hollywood epics, and The Fall Of the Roman Empire, less great but still breathtaking in parts.

The Blu-ray format does justice to Mann’s visual genius and makes this new Kino Lorber edition a must-have for fans of the director’s work and of Westerns.

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1962)

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This is one of those unfortunate films that’s wonderful without being very good, enjoyable without being memorable, filled with admirable things that don’t add up to much.

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Marlon Brando gives one of his quirkiest performances as Fletcher Christian, a supercilious twit who’s called to heroism, but too late in the tale to make us admire him.  When he’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off of him, even though you often wish you could.

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Everything about the film is a mixed blessing.  Splendid shots on the open seas and on location in Tahiti alternate with mediocre back-screen shots.  The score by Bronislau Kaper has the feel of a grand epic symphony without any melodic, stirring passages.

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The movie is always one step away from becoming a grand entertainment, and never quite manages to take that step.  It’s big enough and ambitious enough to keep you engaged for over three hours, but not magical or dynamic enough to inspire you for more than a few shots or scenes at a time.

It’s both entertaining and dispiriting in equal measures.

A STYLE OF MANHOOD

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Traditional Westerns work on many different levels.  They embody an American national myth, a sense of the values and circumstances that forged the nation.  They chart an ideal of the national character.  They are pageants of pictorial and plastic beauty.

On a deeper level they are wisdom tales about manhood, and sometimes about womanhood — educations in the passage to adulthood.

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John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is problematic in many respects, despite offering some of the greatest passages in any Western, indeed in any film.  Its secondary narrative, involving Doc Holliday and his girlfriend Chihuahua, doesn’t seem of a piece with the rest of the film — Victor Mature, though he gives one of his best performances ever, and Linda Darnell, vexing as always, seem like visitors from another movie, another genre, another era.

Their story feels perfunctory, artificial — miles away from the deeper currents of the film, which show a wanderer, Wyatt Earp, seduced into the concerns of civilization, gallantry and love.  Most importantly they present the image of an authentic manhood coming into being.

Henry Fonda’s Earp synthesizes a number of contradictory traits.  He is boyish, instinctively reticent, even shy, but utterly fearless and thoroughly competent when called on to confront danger.  He is unfailingly courteous towards others unless they cross the line of the unacceptable, in which case he is matter-of-factly punitive.

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He is gallant towards women, even when he’s not sure what form gallantry towards women should take, even when he fears that in showing gallantry he might make a fool of himself.  He’s coolly efficient when violent action is required, befuddled when dealing with etiquette towards women — but equally courageous in both predicaments.

His style of being a man defines the essence of manhood — a virility without bluster or show, a politesse without artifice or vanity.  His practical resourcefulness and bravery establish his manliness without need of further proof — his humility and generosity lend his manhood a natural nobility.

There are no men like Fonda’s Earp in modern popular art, one sign of the degradation of our culture.

EDA ZAHL

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Eda Zahl was the first woman who ever appeared in a photograph on the cover of The National Geographic Magazine.  She was the mother of my best friend Paul Zahl when I was a teenager in Washington, D. C.  She was an eccentric, brilliant and opinionated woman.

She was the first adult person, apart from my parents, who ever took me seriously, who took my ambitions seriously.  My parents would have taken any of my ambitions seriously, but Eda Zahl took my specific ambitions, to become a filmmaker, seriously.  She made me feel that abandoning those ambitions would be disgraceful.

Becoming a filmmaker entailed many years of failure, of poverty, of hopelessness.  I was sustained in the journey by my parents’ blind faith, but equally by Eda Zahl’s clear-eyed and demanding faith.  She taught me that being true to one’s dreams was not just a private, personal indulgence but a duty.